2014-07-03

The Pre-Christian Jewish Logos

by Neil Godfrey

Probably most people with more than a casual knowledge of Christianity recognise the following words as quintessentially Christian yet are completely unaware that when first penned these words were Jewish to the core:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Daniel Boyarin explains in Border Lines how these words came to be formulated through a Jewish literary process he calls “midrash” and how they are embedded in a first and second century CE Jewish religious culture that had room in which perhaps most Jews assumed a belief in what we might loosely call a second God or a Logos theology. This second God was variously known as Logos (Greek for “Word”), Memra (Aramaic for “Word”), Sophia (“Wisdom”), Metatron or Yahoel. Not that all these names are equivalent. They aren’t. They are a mix of genders for a start. But Daniel Boyarin conflates them all for purposes of his argument because he believes they are “genetically, as well as typologically, related.” (p. 275, and see also the previous post on the wave theory model of religious ideas.)

I’ll try to explain in a future post the actual midrashic process by which the author of the Gospel of John appears to have woven together passages from Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 (and why he did this) to produce the above opening verses.

Where did the Logos come from?

Erwin Goodenough gave a definitive answer to that question in his 1968 book The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences:

The Logos then in all circles but the Stoic . . . was a link of some kind which connected a transcendent Absolute with the world and humanity. The Logos came into general popularity because of the wide-spread desire to conceive of God as transcendent and yet immanent at the same time. The term Logos in philosophy was not usually used as a title or a unique attributed of God, but rather as the most important single name among many applicable to the effulgent Power of God which reasonably had shaped and now governs the world. (pp. 140-1)

Boyarin goes a step further and stresses

how thoroughly first-century Judaism had absorbed (and even co-produced) these central “Middle Platonic” theological notions. . . . The idea that the Logos or Sophia (Wisdom, and other variants as well) is the site of God’s presence in the world — indeed, the notion of God’s Word or Wisdom as a mediator figure — was a very widespread one in the world of first- and even second- century Judaic thought. (p. 112, my bolding)

Here is where Boyarin (and a good many other scholars of early Jewish thought) parts company with many scholars of the New Testament. (It seems to me that the latter have a tendency to find ways to dismiss the relevance of Jewish ideas if and where they rob early Christianity of its distinctiveness.) Yet the evidence for first century Jews being familiar with

  • the notion of a great being alongside God himself and acting as God’s vice-regent,
  • or with the idea that such a figure was actually a hypostasis or alternative manifestation of God,
  • or with earthly notables like Adam, Israel, Enoch, Moses and others having pre-existing spiritual forms with especially exalted status in heaven and to which their earthly counterparts returned at death,

is very strong. These sorts of ideas were apparently common in first century Judaism.

read more »


2014-07-01

A Lesson from Scholars of Judaism, Linguistics and Physics

by Neil Godfrey

ripplesIt’s been a long break from blogging for me. I can scarcely recall even writing some of the posts I have returned to see here under my name. But here I am living in a new unit and with a clean bill of health from a doctor so time to resume.

Here’s something I found interesting in the early pages of Daniel Boyarin‘s Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (one of the works I was catching up with while absent). Boyarin is discussing a framework through which we can compare various religious groups. It was of interest to me because it led me to think of alternative ways of comparing other ideas, beliefs and literature, especially when exploring the questions related to Christian origins.

Think of the squabbles over whether or not the death and resurrection of Jesus owes anything to myths of Osiris, Heracles, Romulus and others. Or over whether miracles of Jesus are derived ultimately from tales in Jewish Scripture and if so does that mean there is no room for their derivation from oral tradition? Or whether aspects of Hellenistic and Latin literature inspired any of the gospel narratives? When we think about comparisons in these fields it is easy to default to family tree models. Each tree can only produce variations of its own kind (whatever that happens to be) and that’s that.

Boyarin is surveying the panorama the Judaeo-Christian landscape as it was in the second and third centuries with Marcionism and its utter rejection of anything Jewish (Scriptures included) in its Christianity at one far end of the horizon and many Jews who had not the slightest interest in anything to do with Jesus at the opposing end, with every permutation and graduation of belief systems imaginable in between. Instead of the family tree model he proposes a linguistic metaphor — wave theory.

Wave theory posits that linguistic similarity is not necessarily the product of a common origin but may be the product of convergence of different dialects spoken in contiguous areas, dialects that are, moreover, not strictly bounded and differentiated from each other but instead shade one into the other. Innovations at any one point spread like waves created when a stone is thrown into a pond, intersecting with other such waves produced in other places leading to the currently observed patterns of differentiation and similarity. 

So how does this differ from the family tree model?

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2014-06-25

Jesus and the Relationship Between Sin and Disease

by Tim Widowfield
Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod.

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spiteful, jealous, and full of love

The God of the Old Testament had a habit of making people sick, often as a form of punishment. My favorite is the story of the poor Philistines who captured the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Samuel 5:6, we read:

Now the hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. (NASB)

The word “tumors” is a nice way of saying hemorrhoids, or, as the KJV translators put it, emerods. In other words, God gave them a wicked case of the piles. Eventually, the populations of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron wouldn’t sit still for it any longer, and returned the Ark to the Israelites.

More deadly, of course, were the diseases God inflicted upon the Egyptians during the period of bondage. But in the promised land, the Israelites would be safe. In Deuteronomy, he promised to keep his chosen people free of disease.

The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you. (Deut. 7:15, NIV)

So God has complete control over who gets sick and who stays well. What happens if his beloved people stray from the straight and narrow path?

read more »


2014-06-09

Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple: Rationalizing a Miracle

by Tim Widowfield
Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul G...

Christ Cleansing the Temple, c 1655 (J. Paul Getty Museum) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disorderly Conduct

While researching the similarities and differences between Mark’s and John’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, I came across some fascinating observations by David Friedrich Strauss in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. As you no doubt already know, the cleansing of, or what many Historical Jesus (HJ) scholars today often call a disturbance at, the Temple is an event recounted in all four gospels, which imagines a lone Jesus disrupting all business occurring in the outer courtyard.

HJ scholars who claim Jesus was some sort of apocalyptic prophet prefer to believe the event really happened, because it fits in with the eschatological message of their reconstructed Jesus. On the other hand, taking the stories at face value raises many issues. Bart Ehrman, in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, writes:

Most scholars recognize that some aspects of our accounts appear exaggerated, including Mark’s claim that Jesus completely shut down the operation of the Temple (if no one could carry any vessels, it would have been impossible to sacrifice and butcher the animals—which was after all what the Temple was for). As we have seen, the Temple complex was immense, and there would have been armed guards present to prevent any major disturbances. Moreover, if Jesus had actually created an enormous stir in the Temple, it’s nearly impossible to explain why he wasn’t arrested on the spot and taken out of the way before he could stir up the crowds. For these reasons, it looks as if Mark’s account represents an exaggeration of Jesus’ actions. But exaggerations aside, it is almost certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple — for example, overturned some tables and made at least a bit of a ruckus. (Ehrman, p. 212, emphasis mine)

So for Ehrman, the Temple “disturbance” almost certainly happened, but not the way the gospels tell it. Instead, he would argue, the gospels contain a nugget of truth inside an otherwise unbelievable story.

Meanwhile, other NT scholars don’t buy into the historicity of the event. For example, in A Myth of Innocence Burton Mack called the story a “Markan fabrication.” (See p. 292.) For more on the historical aspects of the cleansing, read Neil’s excellent post: “Why the Temple Act of Jesus is almost certainly not historical.”

Identifying the form

Before we go any further, let’s recall an often forgotten rule in biblical studies: To understand what a story means, you must first determine what it is. And so I come back to Strauss’s analysis of the alleged Temple event. With respect to Origen’s take on the Temple tantrum, he wrote:

read more »


2014-06-08

“It is absurd to suggest. . . . ” (A rare bird among the anti-mythicists)

by Neil Godfrey

3D Book cover_aGood old reliable Professor James McGrath and a few of his peers*, blissfully unaware of some of the highly respected names both within and outside New Testament scholarship who have happened to be bold enough to declare their maverick suspicions that there was no historical Jesus, make it clear that if you come out as seriously pondering such a view in their presence they will shut you up immediately scornfully mocking and insulting you. If you dare to ask why they insist the view is such a stupid one they will often enough declare that the arguments have been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This post continues a little series responding to the assertion that the Christ myth notion has long ago been dealt with and demolished. Rather, we will conclude that it has been more generally ignored. The most recent attempts to have dealt with it (McGrath, Casey) are more about character-assassination of those who post anything sympathetic to the idea and about ridiculing caricatures of the arguments. (Ehrman, as has by now been well demonstrated, appears not to have even read, or at least read incredibly superficially, the arguments he set out to refute.) I myself have never posted an argument for the Christ myth theory, but along with a good many others I can see some gaping logical holes in the arguments used to defend the assumption that Jesus did exist. In addition to rationalisations of this assumption we often encounter even liberal scholars resorting to rhetorical questions that essentially appeal to the expected ignorance or lack of imagination of their lay audience.

Of the names carelessly assumed to have long ago accomplished the intellectual demolition of mythicism we have seen that our first two, Goguel and Wood, explicitly stated at the outset of their works that they were NOT going to seriously address the arguments of the mythicists.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howell Smith was not a professional scholar so perhaps that is why his book arguing against the mythicists of his day is not so well known. His book, Jesus Not a Myth, however, is well informed by the scholarship of his day. As we saw in the previous post Howell Smith in 1942 noted how very few scholars in the English speaking world had taken up the case against mythicism and those who had were flawed by their conservative religious bias. It was for that reason he wrote the book I am discussing in this post, Christ Not a Myth.

Howell Smith’s work stands out for its occasional acknowledgement of strengths in some of the mythicist argument. I am not sure I have encountered any contemporary scholar who is prepared to concede any ground whatever to mythicist arguments, a trait that smells like polemics born of insecurity and fear rather than genuine engagement with the arguments. Here are some of my earlier posts covering Howell Smith’s refreshingly honest arguments.

James the Brother of The Lord

Yes, it really is possible to question that famous passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the “James, the brother of the Lord” — a phrase that is most commonly misquoted as “brother of Jesus” by those using it to rhetorically hammer mythicists. Howell Smith, however, is confident enough to openly concede that scholarly arguments are not uniformly and utterly watertight:

read more »


2014-06-01

On Intellectual Property and Other Random Thoughts

by Tim Widowfield

As we draw near to the anniversary of the death and resurrection of Vridar, a time of commemoration and solemn reflection, I’ve been thinking again about how easy it was for us to get shut down, simply on suspicion of a DMCA violation. We’re hardly unique, of course; these takedowns keep happening, and they’ll continue to occur, because the law holds the poster of the content (i.e., us) and the agency hosting the content (i.e., WordPress.com) equally responsible.

You may have read earlier this year how AIDS-deniers tried to censor Myles Power (a warrior against pseudoscience) by getting Google to take down some YouTube videos that debunk their false claims. As Techdirt put it, “This is censorship in its purist form, and it’s using the law to get away with it.” True, Google did eventually restore the videos, but this disturbing series of incidents shows how malicious people can use the law to their own advantage without any fear of repercussion. Cory Doctorow at boingboing wrote:

The DMCA’s takedown procedures have no real penalty for abuse, so it is the perfect tool for would-be censors. What’s more, the entertainment companies — who are great fans of free speech when defending their right to sell products without censorship, but are quite unwilling the share the First Amendment they love so dearly with the rest of us — are pushing to make censorship even easier, arguing that nothing should be posted on Youtube (or, presumably, any other online forum) unless it has been vetted by a copyright lawyer.

I used to bristle at the idea of lumping copyrights and patents into the larger category of “intellectual property,” but that ship has sailed. And in a larger sense the intellectual property that modern corporations jealously guard, as evidenced by the DMCA, which forces content providers to act first and ask questions later, is in fact real property of the purest kind. Specifically, I’m talking about possessions to which legal entities (i.e. people or corporations) claim exclusive title and which generate wealth.

read more »


2014-05-28

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 11: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy (continued)

by Roger Parvus

.

The previous post in this series was focused on chapters 1 – 4 of 1 Corinthians. I proposed that the theme of the disruptive wisdom at Corinth was eschatological and that it featured an earthly kingdom of God. And I suggested that the points of contact between the wisdom discussion in Corinthians and the earthly kingdom described in the book of Revelation may indicate that the party of Cephas at Corinth had some connection with the Revelation community. I also showed how Paul’s resistance to a reign-on-earth doctrine is compatible with my hypotheses that he was Simon of Samaria and his gospel was the Vision of Isaiah.

This post will look at chapters 5 through 7. These abruptly introduce a new subject and present a picture of the Corinthian church that is very hard to accept at face value. Supposedly it was a church composed of Christians whose bizarre ethics somehow combined extreme sexual libertinism (chapters 5 and 6) with strict sexual asceticism (chapter 7)! Not only are some Corinthian Christians going to prostitutes, the community as a whole is apparently boasting about the incest of one their own who has his father’s wife. Yet at the same time some of them are considering a life of virginity. The Apostle has to tell them that it is no sin to get married. And he has to advise those already married not to abstain from sexual intercourse with their spouses.

quote_begin This scenario of such widely divergent sexual attitudes peacefully co-existing in the church founded by the Apostle makes me suspicious. My Simonian hypotheses offer an alternative explanation for the juxtaposition . . . . quote_end

This scenario of such widely divergent sexual attitudes peacefully co-existing in the church founded by the Apostle makes me suspicious. My Simonian hypotheses offer an alternative explanation for the juxtaposition, one that reasonably squares with the Corinthian controversy as a whole. We are dealing with two authors, not one. The author of the original letter was Simon/Paul; the author of chapters 5 and 6 was the second-century proto-orthodox interpolator. These two chapters express the interpolator’s negative assessment of the Simonian church at Corinth. They interrupt, as I will show later in the post, the original situational continuity that existed between chapters 4 and 7 (whether or not this latter chapter was part of the original letter or just a follow-up response to questions provoked by it).

Chapter 4 of 1 Corinthians ended with the Apostle offering himself as an example to be imitated (1 Cor. 4:16). He promised to send Timothy to the Corinthians “to remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:17). But the proto-orthodox disapproved of many of Simon/Paul’s “ways,” and chapters 5 and 6 were inserted to register that disapproval. Whereas he wrote to his flock “not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14), that was not the case with the interpolator. He is blunt: “I say this to shame you” (1 Cor. 6:5).

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The man who reportedly had the father’s wife

Allegory of Divine Wisdom

Allegory of Divine Wisdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 5 begins by saying that it is “widely reported” that among the Corinthian brethren there is sexual immorality “of a kind unheard of even among Gentiles,” namely “a man has the father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1). The command is given to expel the man from the community and to deliver him to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh,” (1 Cor. 5:5). Yet the Corinthian church has apparently not been concerned about the situation. They were even proud of it: “You are puffed up” (1 Cor. 5:2). Their attitude is all the more puzzling in that the Apostle says he told them in a previous letter not to associate with whoremongers, avaricious people, extortioners, idolaters, revilers, or drunks. He offers a belated clarification that he meant brothers who are such, not non-Christians.

I find it hard to accept that there could have been that kind of disconnect between the ethical understanding of the founder of the Corinthian church and his flock. And the reference to an earlier letter could just be a fabricated excuse for the implausible disconnect. Did the Corinthian church really think that it was ok to associate with Christian idolaters and whoremongers but not with pagan ones? I doubt it. The situation described in chapter 5 is not only impractical (as the passage itself concedes: “You would have to go out of the world” – 1 Cor. 5:10), it is also unrealistic. Something else is going on here.

The nature of the “widely reported” incest is that “a man has the father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1). That description, it strikes me, is how a proto-orthodox Christian could view Simon’s outrageous claim that his companion Helen was divine Wisdom. To the proto-orthodox, Wisdom was personified as some kind of female consort of God who assisted him with the work of creation:

Does not wisdom cry out? And understanding lift up her voice? She stands at the top of the high places… I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth was… When he established the heavens, I was there… When he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep… then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always…. And now, my sons, listen to me. Blessed are they who keep my ways… For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord. (Proverbs 8)

So when Simon came along and divulged to certain initiates of his that the woman he was taking around with him was divine Wisdom, was he not a man who reportedly had the Father’s woman?

read more »


2014-05-20

Interview with Reza Aslan (Not the Fox one)

by Neil Godfrey

There is an interview with Reza Aslan where he really does address details of his argument in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth more than his “suspect motives as a Muslim” as we heard in the Fox interview. There is some discussion of his background, too, but not in the Fox manner.

Aslan is visiting Australia at the moment so that’s the occasion. I find his thesis problematic at several points but at least here he is given a chance to explain his argument and a little about his own background.

RN: Late Night Live, Was Jesus of Nazareth a Zealot?

 

 


“It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

by Neil Godfrey

3D Book cover_aThis continues the little “It’s absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism” series inspired by the unbearable lightness of the wisdom of Professor James McGrath. The previous post saw how Professor Larry Hurtado’s source for the comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist, H.G. Wood’s Did Christ Really Live?, in reality explicitly points out to the reader that it is not a comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist. The next candidate for a publication having considered “the strongest case for mythicism” that I consider is A. D. Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth (1942).

Curiously I have not seen this book mentioned by any modern scholars who emphatically declare that mythicist arguments have long since been addressed and decisively demolished. This is curious because Howell Smith really does address the major mythicist arguments of his day. Similarly surprisingly few anti-mythicists today cite Schweitzer as having delivered the death-knell to mythicism. We will see an interesting similarity between ways S and H-S each argue their case for Jesus’s historicity.

I will save some of the details of Howell Smith’s arguments for my next post. Here I want only to introduce A. D. Howell Smith to those of us who only dimly recall my post on his Preface three years ago. I have reformatted it and added subheadings and bolding. Jesus Not a Myth was published in 1942, not long after the appearance of H. G. Wood’s title with the same purpose.

I conclude with a summary of the various Christ-myth views widely known at the time.

Something was sometimes different back then

Notice the way our author actually has some positive things to say about the mythicists he is about to debate. It sounds surreal to read such things given our familiarity with the demonization and gratuitous insults we routinely expect from the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Caseys, the Hoffmanns etc. McGrath, Hurtado and Casey would have readers think mythicism is no more rational or informed than are flat-earthers or moon-landing hoaxers. Seventy years ago Howell Smith (along with Goguel and Wood and Schweitzer and other critics) actually acknowledged the rational spirit infusing mythicism and the names of several prominent and esteemed scholars and others who at the very least toyed with the plausibility of the Christ myth idea. Today’s critics — are there any exceptions? — are far more universally savage in their personal attacks and far more dogged in their refusal to allow any mythicist proposition to be accorded the faintest touch of rationality. Is this a sign of some desperation that the idea just won’t ever seem to go away? Or is it a symptom of the crudeness of an American-Christian dominated scholarship by contrast with the kind of religious ambience of Europe in an earlier generation?

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it.  read more »


2014-05-19

“It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist

by Neil Godfrey

This post continues on from It is absurd to suggest. . . . It’s about a much lesser known anti-mythicist than Goguel but I will excuse myself for that anomaly on the grounds that Goguel’s book is freely available on the web and many would have read it already. Maurice Goguel is evidently R. Joseph Hoffmann’s favourite anti-mythicist; this time we look at the man in Larry Hurtado’s corner.

3D Book cover 2Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, turns to Herbert George Wood as the author of the once-and-for-all answer to mythicism.

But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate! (My emphasis)

Hurtado can no more imagine Jesus being non-historical than he can imagine believing the earth is flat. He would even find the very prospect of trying to demonstrate “the obvious” “a bit wearying”. Once again we see a theologian equate his discipline with complexities and certainties found in the hard sciences like astronomy. Anyone who disputes the claims of either is a kook. (We addressed this fallacy in the first post of this series.)

Evidently Hurtado has never felt any need to update himself with mythicist arguments of today, nor even does it appear he has ever acquainted himself with any of them at any time. He read a book published in 1938 and that clearly put the whole question at rest as far as he is concerned. That book, he informs us, “engages the specifics of evidence and argument”, so what else can possibly be said?

Herbert George Wood, 1938

The dedication of Wood’s book reads:

To
BLIND LEADERS OF THE BLIND
in the hope that both
may open their eyes

In his Preface Wood worries about young people being led astray by the Christ Myth theory of his day:

More young people than we often realize are troubled or misled by the suggestion that Jesus never lived. We cannot rightly ignore the subject. And revivals of interest in the Christ-myth are not unlikely.

In Chicago Wood visited a Russian Workers’ Club and observed the equation of the Christ-Myth idea with “any Marxist anti-God campaign” . . . .

and this book may serve as a kind of spiritual air raid precaution — a preservative against poison gas.

I have thought it best not to traverse the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists

Recall that Goguel made it clear in his preface that he had no intention of actually engaging with the Christ myth arguments themselves. Wood begins the same way: read more »


2014-05-18

“It is absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism”

by Neil Godfrey

This post continues from my previous one . . . .

GoguelMaurice Goguel, 1926

Maurice Goguel prefaced his book against mythicism, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History?,  with these opening words:

The question of the historical character of Jesus is one of present-day interest. It has once again been ably raised by Monsieur P. L. Couchoud in a small volume of considerable literary value and high spiritual inspiration. (Preface)

I have covered the contributions of Paul-Louis Couchoud to mythicist argument in a series of posts now archived at Couchoud: Creation of Christ. Of all mythicists prior to Earl Doherty Couchoud’s thesis comes very close to that of Doherty’s in many respects. Both argue for Christian origins with a Christ who was evidently a spiritual and heavenly figure at all times in the writings of Paul and the other pre-gospel writings. Doherty had come across Couchoud’s work in his own early explorations but the arguments in The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man nonetheless bear the marks of independently arriving at several of the same conclusions.

Of Couchoud himself Goguel wrote a few lines later:

The intellectual loyalty of M. Couchoud, the sincerity and vigour of his thought, the loyal effort which he has made to penetrate into the spirit of primitive Christianity, are worthy of full respect, but this homage which it is a pleasure to pay him does not prevent our seeing in his book the dream of a poet rather than the work of an historian. (Preface)

Some modern anti-mythicists could learn how to engage in debate with a little civility from Goguel.

So what is Goguel’s purpose in his book? Is it to engage and rebut the arguments of Couchoud and other mythicists? Or is he going to bypass mythicist arguments and argue separately why he believes Jesus was historical?

The problem of the historical character of Jesus is one of fact. It is entirely in the region of fact and by this historical method that we shall attempt its solution to decide whether modern criticism since the eighteenth century has entered a blind alley . . . . (Preface)

That sounds as though Goguel’s primary interest is to show what he believes are the facts supporting the historical existence of Jesus. He gives no hint that he is going to actually address Couchoud’s or others’ arguments.

He makes this intention clearer a little later in his opening chapter. read more »


2014-05-17

Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?

by Neil Godfrey
Professor

Some professors make a false equation between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and hard sciences/mathematics on the other and imply both are equally incomprehensible to the general public.

Once again we see a representative of the elite coterie of theologians pouring scorn on the ability of mere lay people to make any valid assessment of their highly learned and scholarly arguments.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Professor James McGrath, Galileo was Wrong, 8th May 2014, my emphasis)

Of course the first thing one notes here is the mischievous framing of the question. Our theologian friend makes it sound as if what is open to challenge are the complex details of “data”, the facts, let’s say the nuances of Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts, and so forth, by only partially informed amateurs and whether they should be so flippant on a “normal” every-day basis.

Of course that is not what the issue is at all. In matters of historical inquiry there is no argument or data that is so complex that it cannot be explained simply and understood by the average anybody. History is not advanced mathematics or quantum physics. If theologians have good arguments for the historical existence of Jesus then there is no reason they cannot be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all.

To this extent the Professor is being a little misleading when he implies that the views of theologians (and let’s add historians here, too) and scientists deserve equally unquestioning acceptance by the public. A historian can explain to me clearly in a way I can understand the reasons, the evidence, for his or her claims and I can understand the arguments of other historians who disagree. I cannot do the same with scholars who debate questions in mathematics or complex physics and the origins of the universe. I have forgotten too much of the science I once learned to pretend I can even fully understand or evaluate the research of climate scientists.

Unfortunately McGrath’s post fails to grasp this basic point. In his failure to grasp the fact that there really is a vast gulf between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences/mathematics on the other when it comes to the potential for public understanding, he probably fails to realize how patronizing his stance really is.

That is, his argument takes a turn that sets up an ignorant elitist gulf between academics generally and a riff-raff public.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics are not superior to others at some things. There would be real problems if they weren’t. Universities can truly be said to contain more of the most intelligent members of society than other institutions. But anyone who works among academics, whether as an academic or support staff, also knows that a few of them truly are the most arrogant, insufferable snobs. I am sure Professor McGrath is not one of those, but he does unfortunately express a snobbish — certainly a breathtakingly thoughtless — argument in his post.)

Before we turn our attention to the elephant in the room, maybe I could use my own way of evaluating scholarly arguments to make the point that a lay amateur really can make valid evaluations of scholarly arguments. If Professor McGrath or anyone else can find serious error and a propensity for misjudgment in how I go about assessing scholarly claims I would love to be told. I have been seriously wrong about things before so I have tried to hone my methods of learning to try to be less wrong now.

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2014-05-15

The Confessional Epilogue: Christians and Acharya

by Neil Godfrey

Scholarship motivated by confessional interests

Most of us are familiar with the confessional reflections that so many biblical scholars drop in at the close of their scholarly works on Jesus. Sometimes this confessional is found in the prologue or preface as well. It is like a little prayer uttered by the devout believer thanking and praising the Lord for the academic study he has produced. It is particularly obnoxious when found in the dedication of a formal higher degree thesis. “Obnoxious” because it betrays an interest and motivation that is not entirely scholarly: it is scholarship motivated by confessional interests.

Examples (my bold emphasis throughout):

  • “Indeed, for Christians, the unending conversation about Jesus is the most important conversation there is. He is for us the decisive revelation of God. . . .” (last paragraph of Borg’s Jesus)
  • “And yet, despite everything, for those who have ears to hear, Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only one worth dreaming. . . .” (Allison, last paragraph of Jesus of Nazareth)
  • “Jesus will always be for me the way to God. . . .” (Spong, last paragraph of Liberating the Gospels)
  • “For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction. . . . If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” (Crossan, final words in The Historical Jesus)

ChristInEgyptAnd so on.

Confessional statements and astrotheology

So it occurred to me that if I am correct in coming to realize that D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) is just as devoted to a religious view of Christian origins and writes with a view to sharing her belief system in the same way, then in her more neutral and “academically” minded books I should find the same confessional statements, most probably in the epilogue.

I have read sections of Christ in Egypt before but this time I turned to conclusion and here is what I found:

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2014-05-14

What Do They Mean by “No Quest”?

by Tim Widowfield
Albert Schweitzer, 1952

Albert Schweitzer, 1952 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazed and confused

As you no doubt recall, scholars frequently divide the quest for the historical Jesus into phases or periods. The first period, following Albert Schweitzer‘s analysis, began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus and ended with William Wrede and Schweitzer himself. Conventional wisdom holds that the quest took a breather at that point, with scholars somewhat shell-shocked by the implications of the works by Wrede, Schweitzer, and Karl Ludwig Schmidt.

This same conventional wisdom marks the beginning of the “Second Quest” (or, at the time, “New Quest”) in the early 1950s with Ernst Käsemann’s lecture, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (published in Essays on the New Testament). The supposed hiatus between Schweitzer and Käsemann is sometimes called the period of “No Quest.”

Miffed scholars

Recently, just out of curiosity, I was Googling “no quest”, and I found several references to indignant conservative and not-so-conservative biblical scholars. They just don’t like that term. It’s dishonest, they insist, and if it’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s dishonesty.

Are they right? And if the pause or moratorium in the first half of the 20th century is a myth, then where did the idea come from and why does it persist?

A “No Quest” period?

First of all, here’s the typical description we get from survey courses and books on the Quest. The front matter for the Fortress Press “First Complete Edition” of The Quest of the Historical Jesus contains Marcus Borg’s “An Appreciation of Albert Schweitzer,” which ends with the following paragraph:

[Schweitzer's] claim that historical Jesus scholarship has no theological significance has been very influential, contributing to a relative lack of scholarly interest in the historical Jesus for a major portion of this [i.e., the 20th] century. His work was thus not only the highwater mark of the “old quest” for the historical Jesus, but brought the quest to a temporary close. Only in the past few decades — with the “new quest” of the 1950s and 1960s and the “third quest” of the 1980s — has substantial interest in the historical Jesus revived. (Quest, p. ix, emphasis mine)

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (The Historical Jesus, A Comprehensive Guide) divide the quest into five phases in which two phases comprise the First Quest. Hence for them “No Quest” is the Third Phase, which they describe as “the collapse of the quest of the historical Jesus.” (Theissen and Merz, p. 9)

“Just not true”

Next, here’s a response from an offended, “anti-no-quest” scholar. In his essay, “The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus” (downloadable PDF), Dale Allison complains about N.T. Wright’s characterization of the first half of the last century as experiencing a “moratorium” on the quest:

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